Local businesses attempting to rank in multiple locations may find themselves running afoul of Google’s guidelines if they aren’t careful. Luckily we’ve outlined some tips to keep your local landing pages white hat.
If you manage a local business website, then you likely have a series of pages for your targeted locations. You may even have some supplementary pages to target cities surrounding your physical locations. Done well, this can be a solid strategy to scale your marketing and make local customers aware of your business.
Unfortunately, these pages are not always finely crafted, and all too often, they are simple template pages with one or two key details changed for each location. Sometimes there is location greed with too many pages created; sadly, this approach is often abused by businesses and those nefarious SEO types to grab a tiny bit more SERP real estate than they really deserve.
To combat this, Google has promised (and possibly released) an update to the Doorway Pages algorithm, which could also catch many (relatively) innocent local businesses in the crossfire.
As with all quality-focused Google updates, it is the problems and woe that get all the column space and not the opportunities the algorithm update creates for smart, proactive local businesses to fill the gap — so, I’m going to talk about turning this potential problem into an opportunity for increased local visibility.
The goal of this post is to provide clarity regarding what Google wants from location landing pages along with a battle plan for creating your city and location pages in a safe and sustainable manner.
The Story So Far?
Google has always targeted doorway pages, but they have made a point of noting that they are soon to be turning up the aggression. They are targeting the usual suspects: low-quality pages or sites that are attempting to increase their search footprint beyond what they may truly deserve. The specific wording states there may be a “broad impact” for sites with large, established doorway campaigns. (Scary, eh?)
Google provides some examples of doorway pages within their Search Console documentation, and these examples tell us most of what we need to know (emphasis is mine):
- Having multiple domain names or pages targeted at specific regions or cities that funnel users to one page
- Pages generated to funnel visitors into the actual usable or relevant portion of your site(s)
- Substantially similar pages that are closer to search results than a clearly defined,browsable hierarchy
If we consider the typical implementation of a website that has (or targets) multiple locations, then we see some fairly consistent patterns: pages that target “specific regions or cities” with “substantially similar” content and exist outside of the “browsable hierarchy.” All of these pages also have the goal of directing the user to the “relevant portion of your site.”
If this sounds like your site, then you may have a big problem. If this sounds like your competitors’ sites, then you may have a bigger opportunity.
Citations Strike Back
There has been some back and forth detailing how the doorway page update could hit sites like Yelp that have multiple entry points to a single piece of content. If citation sites are visible for you and generate a large number of inquiries or referral traffic, then you can take this same approach and roll it out to your citations.
Again, this is an opportunity to really make those citations sing and grab yet more search engine real estate while your competitors flap and moan about how unfair Google is. Strengthen your citations and you will strengthen your local visibility.
Local Landing Pages
Local SEO tends to work best for physical locations, so ranking for your surrounding area will require a combination of local SEO (map pack results) and organic SEO. When implementing a combined local and organic SEO strategy, you may find that your main locations rank in the local pack, but your targeted cities are found in organic results below the pack.
The problem we see here is that these location-specific landing pages are often low quality, and thus multi-location local business sites tick all of Google’s Doorway page checklist:
- targeting multiple regions or cities (and usually way too many)
- pages exist to funnel users to the main part of the site
- substantially similar content on all pages
So, you end up with lots of pages that are essentially the same, have very little value beyond being a step towards something else, and collide with various qualitative elements of the algorithm. Worried yet?
Listening To The Oracles
The most important step in dealing with any ranking problem is to break it down and understand what is possible and practical. Fortunately, Google has pretty much detailed what they don’t want, so we can take the essence of doorway page guidelines and then extrapolate the opposite.
1. Avoid targeting multiple regions or cities.
This is a conundrum, as we want to target multiple regions or cities — that is exactly the goal! The trick here is to not be too aggressive. Don’t go for every single town, city or region — just pick the important ones and start there.
When choosing between several cities within close proximity to your business location, focus on those that are likely to offer the best return. This allows you to significantly reduce the number of these potentially troublesome pages.
2. Avoid pages that exist only to funnel users to the main part of the site.
This one is clear — the pages themselves must have value. If your landing page has thin, low-quality content — i.e., it contains mostly templated elements and some optimized text — then you are in trouble.
The pages must answer the question asked by the searcher. If you are providing a service in a given area, ensure that all the information a visitor needs is on that landing page else. Otherwise, why would Google bother returning that page in their carefully crafted results?
3. Avoid pages that are substantially similar and not in the main navigation.
Again, this is straightforward. Don’t have some cookie cutter text that just swaps out the location. Just don’t do it.
Additionally, ensure that your landing pages can be easily found (ideally from within the main navigation). Using an “areas covered” drop down in your navigation menu can be a good way to do this. If you have a big site with lots of physical locations, then an “areas covered” nav and sub-nav on those pages can do the same job.
Connecting The Dots
I am a simple man, so find it is useful to distill this information down to the absolute essentials. I believe we can summarize the rules for local landing pages as follows:
Build local landing pages only for the most important cities/locations. Make sure these pages are unique. Feature your landing pages in the main navigation. And be sure to provide all the information a customer needs to achieve their goal.
This is easy enough, so let’s get to work!
Local Landing Pages 2.0
Now that we know what not to do, we can outline how to create high quality, unique landing pages that will help your prospective customers to achieve their goals — and will hopefully float to the top of the Google search results as well.
To supplement our interpretation of the quality guidelines, we will look at direct advice from Google, the wisdom of the many wise and experienced local SEO consultants, and our own experience battling in the local SEO trenches every single day for our clients at Bowler Hat.
You will also have to determine how this applies to your own business and location. If you are struggling, leave a comment below this article with any questions, and I will try to assist.
What Google Wants
It often seems that Google speaks in riddles — they are all too happy to tell us what we can’t do but provide less concrete advice on what we can or should be doing. Well, in the case of local businesses they have bucked this trend and provided a guide on how to build location pages for local businesses.
The main problem is that most folks, SEOs included, don’t seem to know this exists. (Go figure.) The guide is not terribly long and is certainly worth a read, but the main takeaways are as follows:
- Location and branch details available on individual pages.
- Location pages are crawlable by Google.
- Information should be presented in an easy to understand format.
- Use schema structured data markup.
- Location pages should be mobile friendly.
Typical information on these localized landing pages would include:
- Business hours
- Phone number
- Services available at that branch
Though the guidelines are applicable to single location businesses as well as business with thousands of locations and a branch locator, some of these instructions are aimed more specifically at the latter. For example, large sites with branch locators may have location pages hidden behind a search and not accessible or indexable. In that case, ensure that each page exists on a unique URL and Google can crawl and discover each individual location page.
For businesses with multiple branches, Google can understand location pages with multiple branches but with this increased complexity well structured pages and the use of schema markup becomes ever more important.
There are also some basic tips on language for opening hours and again a nod towards using schema markup to help Google understand these pages.
What Does The Community Say?
We can also look at the recommendations from the community, and there is a whole bunch of reading to do around this topic. Inside Local recently ran a webinar (featuring SEL columnist Andrew Shotland) that covered ranking outside your actual location. The webinar summarized a lot of the common thinking around location and city pages:
- Build unique, useful pages.
- Don’t build too many of them.
- Feature them in the navigation.
- Use testimonials and other location-specific content.
This is more or less the same information we gathered from our analysis of the Google documentation. Again, in the wider local ecosystem the advice is much the same: build useful, unique pages; ensure they are in the navigation; and don’t build too many of them.
Location & City Pages: Nuts & Bolts
Before we dive into the content, it is important to take a quick pit stop and ensure that the structural SEO nuts and bolts are in place.
1. URLs & Hierarchy
/ /locations/ /locations/sutton-coldfield/ /locations/boldmere/ /locations/walmley/ /locations/mere-green/
This is simple but will do the job.
If we wanted to focus on a larger area, like Birmingham and sub-areas within Birmingham, the URL hierarchy might change to indicate the parent-child relationship between these areas.
/ /locations/ /locations/birmingham/ /locations/birmingham/handsworth/ /locations/birmingham/smethwick/ /locations/birmingham/perry-common/
The point is to determine what makes sense within the context of your business and your users, and to determine a structure that maps to this. And crucially, make sure every location page exists on a unique, crawlable URL.
2. Navigation & Internal Linking
Looking at the Sutton Coldfield example above, we have a simple option for navigation where we have a drop down for “Areas Covered.” This ticks the box to get this page in the “browsable hierarchy” and provides a simple way for your users to locate specific area pages.
Areas Covered - Sutton Coldfield - Walmley - Boldmere - Mere Green
Looking at the Birmingham option with areas and sub areas, we may want to utilize a tiered navigation menu or use submenus on the pages themselves to keep the nav from getting out of hand. Remember, we are only going after the essential locations and surrounding cities, but considerations should be made for larger companies as to how this will scale.
Areas Covered - Birmingham - - Handsworth - - Smethwick - - Perry Common - Area B - - Sub Area B1 - - Sub Area B2 - - Sub Area B3 - Area C
In most cases, I would also use a breadcrumb on the pages themselves and link the various locations and sub locations together naturally in the page copy. Additionally, I would likely link to the service pages from each location to again help connect the dots between locations and services. Where city pages don’t have an actual location, I would link these to the nearest branch or location page to make the association clear.
3. Keyword Targeting
There is some discussion on how to best approach the keyword targeting, but I would generally go with what seems sensible. The following is an example that looks at differences for the home, location, and city pages:
Home: Mac’s Plumber Serving Sutton Coldfield
Location page: Plumber Based in Sutton Coldfield - Mac’s Plumbers
City pages: Local Plumber Serving Walmley - Mac’s Plumbers Local Plumber Serving Boldmere - Mac’s Plumbers Local Plumber Serving Mere Green - Mac’s Plumbers
Google is pretty clever at understanding intent, so use good descriptive language to describe what you do and where you do it.
Ensure you identify all common keyword variations, and try to use them throughout your copy, H1 tags, meta description, and any other on-page elements where it is natural to do so.
Remember: Don’t over-optimize here. There is no need, and it will only have a negative effect on the trust for these pages (which is the opposite of what we are trying to achieve).
4. Schema & Structured Markup
Google’s own location pages guide makes several mentions of Schema.org structured data markup so it’s wise to take the (not so subtle) hint. In a nutshell using schema allows you to more accurately describe your content to Google algorithms and increases the chances they will fully understand and use that content. We see that for larger businesses comprehension by Google is a large issue so anything you can do to clarify is wise – schema.org provides that clarification.
There are some generators out there and Google’s own structured data testing tool but there are a lot of options so I will cover schema.org implementation in more detail in a future post.
5. External Factors
Local SEO is hugely dependent upon your Google My Business listing for each location and your citations.
Make sure your Google My Business listing is 100% complete and really looks the part. This is not difficult, and this is the information that Google uses and trusts — so ensure it is filled out, branded, and has a clear description and photos of your business. I can’t tell you how many times we have seen small tweaks here provide a massive boost. Do it. Do it right. Keep an eye on it.
Citations also have to be clean and consistent. This is tough enough for a single business but can be nightmarish for huge companies, so evaluate your situation and consider one of the popular tools or services to get your citations dialed in. When you have tackled any easy wins, I am a big fan of manual citation audits to ensure NAP consistency and clear up any remaining problems. Again, do it right and keep an eye on it as problems do crop up over time.
Useful, Unique, Quality Content
As ever, we end up here: unique, high quality, relevant content that helps the search engine user achieve his or her goals. It’s common sense, really — if you want Google to rank this page, then ensure the page fulfills the goal the searcher is trying to accomplish.
This is also where the wheels often fall off the wagon, and we end up with a bunch of boring andsubstantially similar pages that just include the absolute minimum. It’s all too easy to fall in line with the factors Google does not want here for location pages (and even more so for city pages without a location), so be diligent.
Some ideas for unique content for these pages are as follows:
- A truly unique description of the services you provide and how they relate to this location. Don’t be scared to link out to internal elements such as blog posts or case studies of jobs in this location. Likewise, link out to any external assets that are highly relevant to your services and that location. Mention any accolades or ties to the local area.
- Customer reviews. Done correctly (i.e., with proper schema markup), reviews have the added bonus of providing you with rich snippets in the search results for your landing page.
- Customer testimonials. These differ from reviews in that they may have a link to the customer’s website or social profiles. You may highlight a comment or some such and link to the full testimonial on a given page.
- Case studies. These can exist on their own pages or be included as part of a service page. Again, this allows you to connect your work to local clients, providing the search engines with more local signals.
- Maps. A custom Google map can be used to show the service area or any other elements that you feel are useful.
- Photos. Photos of jobs taken in the target location can be geo-tagged and included in a gallery of local work.
- Videos. You can create a video for each location and geo-tag the video. Adding these videos with a description of the location and having them on your YouTube channel can help build local relevance. If you can get testimonials from local business owners, then all the better.
- Directions or parking details. Directions may not be relevant on targeted city pages in which you don’t actually have a physical location, but try to provide this information where applicable.
- Clients. Highlighting high-profile clients is a strong credibility factor, and any local clients will only help further your local relevance.
Really, what matters here is identifying what matters to your customers and providing all the useful information in one tidy little package. If you have extensive additional content (such as case studies), be sure to link out to these and connect the dots between all location-specific content.
Building Your Location Pages
Now we know what it is that Google wants, along with some content options to keep this 100% unique, we can look at how we put these pages together. The thing to remember here is that these are essentially landing pages and lessons from building landing pages for any campaign can be applied.
I am no landing page guru but the basics are, to some extent, common sense:
I like to have my more traditional, conversion-led content above the fold:
- Have a clear heading and sub-heading
- Some strong photography or images
- A short piece of text describing your offering
- A clear, concise and visually obvious call-to-action
Weave in your local elements here, but focus on the conversion.
Below the fold is where we add the additional elements mentioned above. We can detail our reviews, testimonials, case studies, and other content that helps create a truly unique page for each location.
Typically, the further down the page something is, the less folks will see it — so have some consideration for what and where you place elements in the content stack. You will need to tailor this to your specific audience, but a simple suggestion could be as follows:
- Above the fold content
- Case Study
- Gallery of local work
- Map / Directions
If you are really going for it with these pages, you can add a sub-navigation to each page. This will provide a visual cue to the content way down in the depths of the page.
Also, don’t feel like every page has to follow the exact same pattern. Chop, change, and reorder as you see fit to make the best page for each location.
Utilize the PPC landing page mindset here when reviewing these pages — would you be happy to pay $5 for a user to view this page? I find it particularly useful when working with clients to move the discussion from an esoteric SEO debate and towards something they do understand: money.
Credibility Is King
In many cases, you will be competing against folks who may be closer to the searcher — but location is not everything. I have a supermarket close to home, but I use the farm shop that is an extra 15 minutes drive because there is simply no comparison in terms of the quality of the produce.
Focus on showing why you are the better choice. Closest is not always best. Being the most reputable provider is often more important.
In other words, think beyond simply getting people to these pages, and focus on how you can prove your credibility and seal the deal once they arrive.
Ranking Outside Your Local Area
As a general rule of thumb, Google wants you to have location pages — that is, pages for areas where you have one or more locations. There is no law against pages targeting surrounding towns and cities, and this maps to the “service area” mentality.
These pages, however, are not supported by the local signals from maps, so they just have to work that little bit harder to show up in organic search. Keep this in mind and ensure that you don’t skimp when creating these pages.
There is a quote by Reid Hoffman, the co-founder of LinkedIn, that states that “First mover advantage doesn’t go to the first company that launches, it goes to the first company that scales.”
The web makes attempts at scaling seemingly simple. In the early days of the Web, machine-generated pages would rank pretty well (very well in some cases). As with everything SEO, this was soon abused — volume went up and quality went down. Suffice to say, this does not work any longer.
Now, to be visible in specific locations, you are going to have to work at it. Your shop window needs to be carefully decorated. You need to add value and demonstrate that you are among the best choices for a user in a given location.
Location pages can get a bit of a pass due to local signals from maps, but city pages have to really earn their place in those results. The better you can make them, the better chance they have of succeeding.
These city and location pages are your virtual salespeople — make sure they have all the ammunition needed to sell, sell, sell! In doing so, you will see your time investment rewarded whilst you weather more algorithmic pruning of your competition’s low quality, cookie-cutter pages.